The following was produced in partnership with our friends at Mega Construx, who encourage kids to unlock their potential by building beyond the rules of construction.
As technological progress accelerates, the future can start to feel like an intimidating abstraction. It’s a parent’s job to make sure it never feels that way for their children, who will spend most of their lives in an unseen tomorrow. And, no, that doesn’t mean a suburb studded with flying cars. The future is more complicated and far more exciting than that. But understanding how contingency splits and knots together, tying personal quests into global histories, is difficult for those lacking perspective that only time can afford.
Kids need help looking forward because looking forward is hard.
The first step to teaching children how to think about the future is teaching them that fate is a fiction. The future isn’t predetermined; it’s built by people with new ideas. And new ideas don’t just come from the clear, blue sky. People work to find them. People structure and restructure their whole lives around the search for insight. And, generally speaking, those people have been curious since they were young.
Futurists Mark Stevenson and Brian David Johnson were curious kids who grew into curious adults. Stevenson is a comedian turned consultant for the likes of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge, which aims to solve the problems of tomorrow. Johnson is a professor and futurist in residence at Arizona State University’s Center For Science And The Imagination and former chief futurist at Intel, where he helped envision the microprocessors that let you read this on a palm-sized computer. Both men believe every kid is born capable of building a future for both themselves and others. They just need to be given room to let their imaginations off the leash.
Encourage Imagination, Creativity, And Collaboration
Johnson and Stevenson credit their parents for encouraging their curiosity and crazy ideas. “Everybody has imagination,” says Johnson. “What they lack is a culture that supports and encourages it and the tools and processes to use it.”
Here are some ways to build an environment where all imagination is created and encouraged equally:
- At home: Read constantly. Reward your kid’s wacky ideas with praise, interest, and opportunities to dream up even more.
- At school: Prioritize questioning, not answering. “When they come home, don’t ask them what they learned but if they asked a good question that day,” Stevenson says. “Make them aware of the opportunity to ask a good question. Basically, asking ‘Why?’ a lot.” His kid is only 14 months old. Just wait ’til the toddler years, Mark.
- After school: Get them into the arts or sports. “Art teaches you to link disparate ideas and create something beautiful from nothing,” Stevenson says. “And with a theater company, band, or team, you collaborate creatively with other players. That builds an incredible skillset.” Adds Johnson, “Drawing, painting, building, storytelling — they’re all like muscles. You have to practice.”
Get Them Building
Once their imaginations are flowing, talk through their ideas, write them down, and immediately start building that robot, penning that sci-fi story, or inking that comic book. In futurist-speak, this is called “applied learning.“
“Get them building, drawing, programming, working, understanding that they’ll start building sooner than later,” Johnson says. Adds Stevenson, “Let them go make stuff. People divide over ideology but connect over projects. Engineers don’t build Democrat or Republican bridges. They build bridges.” If only … actually, not touching that one.
Make Them Explain It To You
Citing 15 years teaching futurist skills to kids through the 21st Century Robot Project, Johnson says the “Aha!” moment often comes when kids communicate their ideas to others. “By the end of a short summer program, students who don’t have computer labs are on stage explaining to other kids how their homemade robot works,” he says. “That’s when they see themselves as proficient. They learn differently when they know they’re the expert.”
Stevenson agrees, saying empathy and collaboration are keys to future-forward thinking. So, the next time your kid does some unauthorized building with your favorite tools, just ask them what they’re making. The answer might surprise you.
Go Beyond The Front Of The Box
The best kind of play, say the futurists, is play where there’s no right answer. “It’s not about recreating what’s on the box, it’s about realizing they can create whatever they want,” says Stevenson. “You never learn anything without a mistake.” Look no further than their favorite construction toys and blocks to provide opportunities to build whatever their imagination conjures, regardless of the pictures on the package.
That said, there are limits. “I’m not going to let my son wander into the street to discover what a car looks like,” Stevenson continues. Good rule. Give your kid just enough slack and not a centimeter more; let them know you’ll keep them safe so they feel comfortable exploring beyond what’s right in front of them or in the instruction manual.
“It’s not about recreating what’s on the box, it’s about realizing they can create whatever they want”
The future is unknown and the unknown is scary. Face that fear by challenging your kids and yourself with unknown ideas and experiences. Stevenson and his wife do this by taking each other on one date a month they think the other will hate. “Don’t be restricted by your own prejudices. Smashing into as many new ideas as possible changes your life for the better,” he says. “Even if you think you’ll hate it, the reasons will be important to the churning and noodling of your brain.”
Do It Yourself
The best way to raise a curious, communicative, future-forward kid is to be those things yourself. Says Stevenson, “If you teach them nothing can change, they’ll believe it. Try not to be cynical.” That’s easy for some, but if you’re like many adults who, as Stevenson says, “have had the joy of learning crushed out of them,” cut yourself some slack. You don’t have to go all Peter Pan. Just give your kid your most valuable commodity: time. Not necessarily to do projects together, adds Johnson, but to discuss them, be involved in your kid’s imagination, and reward creativity with … more time. Time for them to experiment and explore more, now and in the future.
Remember, the future doesn’t happen to people — people make the future. So that’s how you should talk about it. Empower your kid to be an active participant in their immediate future and, eventually, they’ll change their community and the world. Johnson likes to say, “The future is local.” As in, around the dinner table, at school, on the ball field, and, hopefully, on the driveway with a sweet hoverboard.